Plant-based meat alternatives

bee-io makes Honey without bee in a Lab

Update 17 May 2024: After a promising beginning, is Singapore's cultivated meat industry on the way to the slaughterhouse?
What is next for the nascent industry that seemed off to such a good start?

It was June 2022, and the lab-grown meat industry looked like it had a sizzling future. The largest cultivated chicken meat facility in Asia broke ground in Singapore, with a 30,000 sq ft complex at Bedok Food City, set to produce "tens of thousands of pounds" of meat a year. 

The company behind this audacious venture was US-based Eat Just, who had plans to sell lab-grown chicken meat under the label Good Meat. Eat Just representatives were joined by Singapore officials, including Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, at the groundbreaking ceremony. Indeed, in October 2022, the government announced it had set aside fresh funding of S$165 million (US$122 million) to accelerate R&D in sustainable urban food production, future foods, and food safety science and innovation. This was over and above an initial S$144 million of research funding in 2020. 

Singapore was also the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown meat, with Huber's Butchery in Dempsey Hill being the only restaurant in the world selling lab-grown meat back in early 2023. In March this year, Eat Just put its lab-grown meat production at the Bedok facility on hold, the Straits Times reported. Huber’s Butchery stopped offering the product in December last year. In the same month, it was reported that Singapore-based lab-grown seafood startups Shiok Meats and Umami Bioworks were merging. And it is not just here that the industry is slowing down. A New York Times article in February detailed the decline of the industry – one which had a bright start with investors pouring over US$3 billion into the industry between 2016 and 2022.

Cultivated meat producer Eat Just pauses operations in Singapore
Eat Just’s facility in Bedok Food City was shuttered when The Straits Times visited it on Feb 29. ST PHOTO: SHABANA BEGUM

The world’s first cultivated meat product was approved for sale in Singapore in 2020 to much fanfare. But production of the cell-based meat by Californian firm Eat Just has been put on pause, The Straits Times understands. Eat Just’s cultivated chicken products – sold under the label Good Meat – are not available at Huber’s Bistro, which was previously the only restaurant offering the novel food. The Good Meat production facility in Bedok, initially slated to open in the third quarter of 2023, is shuttered, ST checks showed.

When queried, an Eat Just spokeswoman said: “We’re evaluating various processing conditions, the unit economics, and a larger strategic approach to producing in Asia.” Huber’s Bistro stopped offering the kebab skewers and chicken salads made with Good Meat in December 2023. Its marketing manager said Huber’s will have the product on the menu again when supply is ready and expects to resume its offering of the cultivated chicken “very soon”. It had previously been selling the dishes since January 2023.

Meanwhile, Eat Just’s $61 million cultivated meat manufacturing facility in Bedok appears not to be in operation. The company held a ground-breaking event for the facility in 2022. Timeline:

Lab-Grown Cultured Meat
A nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat at a restaurant in Singapore

The salad looks relatively normal: fried chicken, leafy greens, red cabbage, slices of mandarin, a mango-sesame dressing on the side. But this is no ordinary salad. Getting hold of this particular lunchbox involved staking out a hotel lobby and quick fingers on a delivery app. The prize? Not tickets to a K-pop concert, but one of the world’s first servings of cell-cultured meat. Our modest serving has been breaded and fried and tastes like a diced chicken schnitzel. With some poking and prodding, the nugget reveals none of the long muscle fibers you would expect to find in a chicken breast. This is perhaps responsible for a slight hint of rubber-ball bounciness, but overall the texture is impressively avian. We’d eat it again.

We have pescatarians, vegans, flexitarians, locavores and of course vegetarians. But what’s the word for those of us who make the choice to eat meat not raised on a farm or slaughtered in an abattoir, but grown in a lab? Perhaps the “cytovore”, consumer of cells. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. In Singapore, the US company Eat Just gained approval to sell its nuggets of lab-grown chicken to consumers in December 2020. Under the brand name “Good Meat”, Eat Just rolled out its first products at an exclusive social club. Diners sample a bao with sesame chicken and pickled cucumber and a maple waffle served with chicken nuggets. In April, Eat Just partnered with another restaurant to begin introducing its chicken to a wider public via a delivery service. As well as the Asian chicken salad, the Cantonese restaurant is also selling their novel meat in the form of chicken dumpling and chicken fried rice. Demand has already been high – just a few minutes after appearing online, the eight servings for the day were sold out.

Cultured meat has made strides in the last few years, but production remains small. Although the science of tissue culture has been around for more than half a century, growing sufficient flesh to make an edible product at a competitive price has been the major challenge. Good Meat’s meals are priced at 23 Singapore dollars (about US$17) – certainly not a cheap portion. The company is actively working to scale up supply and bring down costs, but it’s clear that challenges remain. Consumer production requires using larger quantities of expensive growth media and bioreactors adapted from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. These look like the giant steel vats you might see on a brewery tour. The cells grown in these tanks are mixed with other food products to obtain a desirable taste and consistency. This high level of processing is certainly not likely to appeal to everyone.

Largest plant-protein factory in Singapore to open within the next two years

The humble mung bean - used in the old school dessert tau suan - will be the key ingredient in the largest plant-protein factory to come to Singapore within the next two years.

Eat Just, the Californian start-up responsible for the alternative protein factory, said that the bean can be transformed into a protein isolate, which is a main ingredient of alternative protein products manufactured here. The products include bottled yolk that can be scrambled and cell-grown meat products currently being manufactured in Singapore.

To be built on a 2.7ha plot in Pioneer, the factory will contribute thousands of tonnes of plant-based protein every year, strengthening Singapore's food security.

read more

Introduction to Plant-based Meat

Plant based meat. What may instantly come to mind at these words are things like blocks of tofu and tempeh, canned chickpeas and dried green lentils — the staples of the many vegan kitchens that just don’t seem to capture everything that meat actually is.

Because, well, plant based meat is much more expansive than the raw legumes which, as exciting as they are, are not so appealing to the modern omnivore — or, not as appealing as a nice beef patty.

Plant based meat is anything that is a substitute for the flavours and nutrition of animal meat that is derived from plants or fungi. So yes, it does encompass such raw legumes, but it also extends to much more. Key Takeaways:
  • Plant based meat is anything that is a substitute for the flavours and nutrition of animal meat that is derived from plants or fungi.
  • It uses things like legume fractions, starches, fats, and recombinant proteins (as well as other additives) to simulate the nutritional and sensory properties of meat.
  • These ingredients are processed using shearing and extrusion in order to replicate the fibrous texture of meat.
  • It has massive implications for agriclture’s environmental footprint as well as food security, health and animal welfare.
  • The industry is rapidly expanding with investment on many fronts and the technology is popular amongst vegans/vegetarians and omnivores alike.

How Do They Make Plant-Based Meat Behave Like Beef?
The beefy look, feel and taste of vegan meat come from a variety of sources.Credit...Peter Prato for The New York Times

Texture, appearance and flavor: These are the elements of meat that the new vegan alternatives from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are trying to capture, with varying degrees of success. Here’s how they do it:
  • Texture - In ground beef, animal protein provides springy texture and allows the meat to bind to itself. (Hamburgers would simply crumble if it didn’t.)
  • But mimicking the texture of animal protein using plant-based ingredients has always been difficult because of a fundamental difference between animals and plants: muscles, which are by necessity elastic and springy. To move their bodies, animals must be able to easily change the shape and tension of their flesh without damaging it. Plant cells, on the other hand, are relatively rigid and unflexing.
  • To put it simply, plants are crunchy, and meat is chewy. This is why veggie burgers can often feel crumbly or mushy in texture, without the bite and springiness of animal protein. To solve this problem, researchers have spent years isolating and cataloging a wide variety of plant-based protein sources. As a result, the texture of modern vegan meat — provided by wheat or pea proteins, among others — can be fantastic.

What are plant-based meats and are they healthier?
Plant-based meats are often lower in calories and saturated fat while higher in fiber Westend61 - Getty images

To put it simply, plant-based meat is meat made from plants. It is created and manufactured to appear, feel, and taste like conventional meat from animal products. Nowadays, you can find plant-based meat in the freezer section of most local supermarkets or grocery stores. Usually, plant-based meats come frozen, but some health food stores may carry fresh cold cuts in the deli section. There are multiple forms of this veggie-based alternative, such as nuggets, sausage, burger patties, and much more. But not all plant-based meats are made the same.

"A few years ago, the base of most plant-based burgers was vegetables, oat, or beans. Now, with plant-based foods gaining more popularity, there are many more options. Two of the most popular brands, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, utilize pea protein or soy protein concentrate in their burgers, both of which closely mimic the texture and taste of real beef," says Rhyan Geiger, RDN, a registered dietitian with a private practice.

Some of the most common ingredients in plant-based meat are the following:
  • Vegetable protein
  • Vital wheat gluten or seitan
  • Coconut oil
  • Beans
  • Spices
  • Soy
  • Beet juice extract
  • Rice

Plant-Based Meat: A Brighter Future for Food?

Plant-based meat is growing more popular by the day, and for good reason. Offering a healthier alternative to meat, while being vastly more sustainable and packing authentic flavors, aromas, and textures, plant-based meats are making it easier than ever to reduce conventional meat consumption, or even eliminate it altogether. But what, exactly, qualifies as plant-based meat? What differentiates these products from tofu or black bean burgers? And how good for the environment are they, really? Read on for answers to these, and other commonly-asked questions about plant-based meat.

What Is Plant-Based Meat? Plant-based meat refers to products made from plant materials that are designed to mimic meat in every way, from taste and smell to texture and appearance. Plant-based meats use one or more alternative protein ingredients and can come in the form of burgers, sausages, ground meat, crumbles, nuggets, or even faux-seafood like shrimp and fish.

What Is Plant-Based Meat Made From:
  • Plant-based meat can be made from a variety of ingredients, depending on the type of meat being produced and the company creating it. Common ingredients include grains and legumes, used for their proteins, fibers, and starches, which can be converted into isolates, flours, and concentrates. Through a process known as extrusion, whereby ingredients are put through hydration, shearing, and cooking, these ingredients are made to more closely mimic meat characteristics, while eliminating unwanted aromas, flavors, or textures. By way of example, the Beyond Burger features pea protein isolate as its star ingredient.
  • Aside from protein components in grains and legumes, fibers and starches are also used in extruded plant-based meats to help make products more like animal meat. Whole muscle meat products can achieve a more realistic fibrous composition thanks to these ingredients, which can also be used to create realistic sausage casings.
  • Fermentation is another process commonly used in some plant-based meats. Impossible Foods, for example, created a plant-based heme molecule that allows their burgers to bleed just like an animal-based burger would. Impossible’s heme is created by fermenting yeast that has been engineered to produce the molecule.

Are Plant-Based Meat and Fish Healthier Than the Real Thing?

With the heightened focus on eating more plant-based foods, food manufacturers have been developing plant-based animal foods (hello, Impossible Burger!). Now, you can find foods like beef, tuna, shrimp and eggs in plant-based form on supermarket shelves. But are these foods really a healthier alterative to their animal counterparts? Here’s a comparison between the animal and plant-based alternative of these foods.

The Real Thing - Because of increased trimming practices, there are many more cuts of lean beef available at the market. When a cut is labelled as “lean,” it contains less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3.5 ounces. You can tell a steak is lean if you see the words “round” or “loin” in the name such as top sirloin steak, top loin steak, and tenderloin steak. Beef also provides a healthy dose of 10 nutrients. It’s an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, niacin, vitamin B6 and phosphorus, and it’s a good source of riboflavin, iron and choline.

Plant-Based Alternative - Two companies, Impossible Foods and Beyond Burgers, sell plant-based beef that has become popular in supermarkets and in restaurants. Impossible Foods created a plant-based beef made from soy protein that has the taste and texture like beef. The scientists at Impossible Foods created a plant-based heme through the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast that helps create that feel of traditional beef. Beyond Burgers also looks and tastes like a beef burger and even “bleeds” like one. The protein comes from peas, rice and mung bean, while the fat comes from canola oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter. Both Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have a rather long list of ingredients and vitamins and minerals that were added in order to have a similar nutrient composition of traditional beef.

Are Plant Based Meats Healthier than Regular Meat

Not that long ago, a new type of burger patty gained in popularity. With various names and brands such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Before the Butcher and Morningstar Farms, these new burgers and ground beef products are all plant-based, meaning they aren’t made with any animal products. Plant-based meals aren’t just limited to burgers, however. These days, supermarkets everywhere offer up plant-based items ranging from milk, beef and tuna to eggs and shrimp.

For many people, plant-based meats are just as tasty as “the real thing” and proponents claim they are better for the environment and kinder to animals. On the other hand, critics are worried that plant-based foods are just as calorie-laden and unhealthy as eating animal protein.

With the recent meat shortage scare resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic many people are considering meat alternatives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 5,000 coronavirus cases and 20 deaths occurred throughout 115 meat and poultry processing plants in April 2020. As a result, many people noted an increase in the prices consumers pay for meat at grocery stores. With the increased demand for plant-based meats, we looked at whether or not these meatless alternatives are healthier than regular meat.

The Downside of “Alternative Meat” That No One’s Talking About

At this point, we know that cutting back on meat consumption is good for our health and the environment. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who eat red meat in particular are at an increased risk of death from heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Not only is eating a lot of meat bad news for our bodies, it’s also not great for the environment. A 2018 study published in the journal Science found that while meat and dairy provide 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein in our diets, they use 83 percent of farmland and produce 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of the environmental impact, some people have opted to make the switch to plant-based meat alternatives, like the Impossible Burger. Even some major chains are jumping on board, which is apparent in these ways fast food is changing in 2020. But as it turns out, these highly-processed fake meats aren’t necessarily great for the planet—or our diets— either.

Here’s what you need to know about plant-based meat alternatives:
  • Are fake meats better for the environment? In short, it all depends on who you ask. According to Stephanie Feldstein, director of the population and sustainability program at the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit group that aims to protect endangered species, the environmental impact of plant-based meats is a fraction of that of the animal products they’re replacing. “The most popular plant-based alternatives, Beyond and Impossible Burgers, produce about 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, in comparison with beef,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “They reduce land use by at least 93 percent and water use by 87 percent to 99 percent. They also generate no manure pollution.” Here’s exactly what’s in those “impossible” burgers.
  • But, as the New York Times pointed out in a 2019 article, many of these statistics come from a 2018 report commissioned by Beyond Meat, one of the largest plant-based meat alternative companies. In other words, more independent research is needed to better understand the impact of fake meat on the environment.

5 Plant-Based Meat Alternatives in Singapore: Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods & More

The days when vegetarians were relegated to that one mock meat stall at every hawker centre are over. 

Plant-based meats are making the rounds in Singapore, with vegetarian food products that look identical to their meat-based counterparts now widely available at supermarkets. More restaurants and cafes are using vegan meat from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat too.

What’s more, Singapore now has a new claim to fame: being the first country in the world to approve the sale of lab-grown meat. But before the world starts to wonder if it’s ready for that, let’s figure out the atas mock meats first.

Jackfruit is the plant-based protein of choice for Singaporean start-up as global demand for meat alternatives continues to rise
Dishes made using Karana’s whole plant meat shreds and mince. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Karana, a Singapore-based food start-up, is feeding the ever-increasing demand for plant-based proteins with a product that uses the tropical jackfruit.

It has partnered with two of Hong Kong’s best known chefs to introduce its brand to city diners; it expects to have products available for Hong Kong home cooks by the end of the year.

Karana uses only jackfruit, oil, salt and natural flavourings to make its whole plant meat shreds and mince. It sources jackfruit in Sri Lanka, where they are partly processed before final processing in Singapore.

Meet The Company Creating Asia’s First Plant-Based Meat Alternative Using Jackfruit

The alternative protein industry, which includes cell-based and plant-based companies, has been mushrooming over the last few years spurring a movement to change the way we eat. The products may be different but their collective goal is to repair our broken food systems and achieve a more sustainable future by reducing global meat consumption and replacing them with other protein-rich solutions.

Food security is a precarious issue, especially in Singapore, where arable land is scarce and produce is generally imported. However, the Singaporean government is strategically focusing on producing 30 per cent of the population’s nutritional needs by 2030 through an innovative route. With scores of industry experts, like-minded investors, and an open-minded dining scene, Singapore offers a promising ecosystem for the following food tech companies to thrive and launch their global crusade to change how food is made, distributed and consumed locally.

Founded in Singapore in 2018 by co-CEOs Blair Crichton and Daniel Riegler, Karana is Asia’s first whole plant-based meat brand. Its first product is whole plant-based pork made from organic young jackfruit sourced from Sri Lanka. Karana’s solutions deliver a revolutionary next-generation meat alternative. The company uses proprietary processing technology to create “meat” from whole plants, and enhance the ingredients’ texture, without any chemicals or heavy processing.

Would You Eat Plant-Based Meat Made Of … Jackfruit?
A taco can change your life

It did for Karana’s co-founder Dan Riegler, who while working in Indonesia was so amazed that a delicious “pork” taco he was eating was actually jackfruit that he immediately started looking into jackfruit-meat products and supply sources. Serendipity then led Riegler (who’s worked across start-ups in agriculture, food tech and fintech) to Blair Crichton, who’s done stints with food-tech start-ups like Impossible Foods, New Age Meats and The Good Foods Institute in California’s Silicon Valley.

Their Singapore-based company, Karana, plans to launch “pork” made from organic jackfruit later this year. In July, it closed its seed funding round with US$1.7 million ($2.3 million), with seed investors including the Monde Nissin Group (which bought Quorn Foods for £550m in 2015), agtech investment firms Big Idea Ventures and Germi8, and angel investors including Hong Kong-based food and beverage entrepreneurs. 

Karana plans to use the funds to launch its first range of whole-plant “pork” with restaurants here, following up with a range of ready-to-cook dim sum items like char siew bao and “pork”-and-chive dumpling for retail customers. Dim sum was chosen as consumers find it familiar and easy to prepare, says Crichton, who adds that Karana will also offer the whole-plant meat alternative for retail soon. So far, culinary experiments with Karana’s jackfruit-pork have proven promising, with chefs using it successfully in all manner of Eastern and Western dishes like Taiwanese lu rou fan (braised pork rice), Korean bulgogi, banh mi, shish kebabs and pizza. The proprietary techniques Karana uses to make “pork” from young jackfruit may be cutting edge, but the idea is anything but, according to its founders, who note jackfruit’s long history in Asian cuisine.


China launches Tianhe module to Tiangong space station

Update 24 Jul 2022: China launches Wentian module to Tiangong space station

China on Sunday launched Wentian, the first lab module of its space station. The new module will function both as a backup of the core module and as a powerful scientific experiment platform. The Wentian module is 17.9 meters long, has a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters and a takeoff mass of 23 tonnes, almost the size of a subway car in Beijing. It is the heaviest single-cabin active spacecraft in orbit in the world, according to Liu Gang, deputy chief designer of the China manned space program's space station system with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

The Wentian module consists of a work cabin, an airlock cabin and a resource cabin. The Long March-5B Y3 carrier rocket, carrying Wentian, blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the coast of the southern island province of Hainan at 2:22 p.m. (Beijing Time), according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). About 495 seconds later, Wentian separated from the rocket and entered the planned orbit. The launch is a complete success, the CMSA declared.

This is the 24th flight mission since the country's manned space program was approved and initiated. The construction of China's Tiangong space station is expected to be completed this year. It will then evolve from a single-module structure into a national space laboratory with three modules -- the core module Tianhe, and lab modules Wentian and Mengtian. The Tianhe module was launched in April 2021, and the Mengtian module is set to be launched in October this year.

China launches space station core module Tianhe
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the Tianhe module, blasts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in south China's Hainan Province, April 29, 2021. China on Thursday sent into space the core module of its space station, kicking off a series of key launch missions that aim to complete the construction of the station by the end of next year. (Xinhua/Ju Zhenhua)

China on Thursday sent into space the core module of its space station, kicking off a series of key launch missions that aim to complete the construction of the station by the end of next year.

The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the Tianhe module, blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the coast of the southern island province of Hainan at 11:23 a.m. (Beijing Time). About 494 seconds later, Tianhe separated from the rocket and entered the planned orbit. At 12:36 p.m., its solar panels unfolded and started to work properly. The successful launch of the core module marks that China's space station construction has entered the full implementation stage, which lays a solid foundation for the follow-up tasks, said Chinese President Xi Jinping in a congratulatory message.

Tianhe will act as the management and control hub of the space station Tiangong, meaning Heavenly Palace, with a node that could dock with up to three spacecraft at a time for short stays, or two for long, said Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Tianhe has a total length of 16.6 meters, a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters and a takeoff mass of 22.5 tonnes, and is the largest spacecraft developed by China. The space station will be a T shape with the core module at the center and a lab capsule on each side. Each module will be over 20 tonnes. When the station docks with both manned and cargo spacecraft, its weight could reach nearly 100 tonnes. The station will operate in the low-Earth orbit at an altitude from 340 km to 450 km. It has a designed lifespan of 10 years, but experts believe it could last more than 15 years with appropriate maintenance and repairs.

China launches Tianhe space station core module into orbit
Liftoff of the Long March 5B rocket carrying the Tianhe core module for the Chinese Space Station. Credit: CCTV

China successfully launched a 22-metric-ton module April 29, beginning an intense period of missions for constructing the nation’s own space station. A Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket lifted off from the coastal Wenchang spaceport at 11:23 p.m. Eastern. The Tianhe space station core module separated from the first stage after 490 seconds of flight. Solar array deployment occurred just over an hour after launch. Li Shangfu, chief commander of the China Manned Spaceflight Program, announced launch success shortly after.

Tianhe, or “harmony of the heavens,” is now expected to raise its orbit to around 370 kilometers above the Earth. The uncrewed Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft is slated to rendezvous and dock with Tianhe in mid-late May, ahead of the visit of three astronauts aboard Shenzhou-12 in June. The missions will be the first three of 11 launches scheduled for 2021 and 2022 to build the planned 66-ton, three-module orbital outpost. A Long March 2F rocket and Shenzhou spacecraft will also be on standby at all times at Jiuquan to perform emergency rescue missions to the space station, a senior space official stated in March. Tianhe, a much larger upgrade on China’s smaller, 8-ton Tiangong testbed space labs, is equipped with a multi-docking hub to facilitate construction of the space station and allow crew to embark on extravehicular activities. The 16.6-meter-long, 4.2-meter-diameter Tianhe will provide regenerative life support and the main living quarters for astronauts as well as propulsion to maintain orbital altitude.

The construction phase of China’s space station begins nearly 30 years after the project was first approved, back in 1992. Across this period China has developed and tested the Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March 2F for human spaceflight, Tianlian relay satellites, rendezvous and docking technologies, refueling in microgravity, new launch vehicles and the coastal Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in order to proceed with the project. The CSS is expected to operate in orbit for at least ten years. Experiment modules named Wentian and Mengtian, expected to launch in 2022, will host a plethora of experiments in areas including astronomy, space medicine, space life science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion and space technologies.

China launches first module of new space station
The Tianhe module was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre

China has launched a key module of a new permanent space station, the latest in Beijing's increasingly ambitious space programme. The Tianhe module - which contains living quarters for crew members - was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on a Long March-5B rocket. China hopes to have the new station operational by 2022.

The only space station currently in orbit is the International Space Station, from which China is excluded. China has been a late starter when it comes to space exploration. It was only in 2003 that it sent its first astronaut into orbit, making it the third country to do so, after the Soviet Union and the US. So far, China has sent two previous space stations into orbit. The Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 were trial stations though, simple modules that allowed only relatively short stays by astronauts.

The new, 66-tonne, multi-module Tiangong station is set to be operational for at least 10 years. Tianhe is the core component of it. It is 16.6m long and 4.2m wide. It will provide power and propulsion and contains the life support technologies and living quarters required by visiting astronauts. Beijing plans to have at least 10 more similar launches, carrying all the additional equipment into orbit, before the completion of the station next year. It will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450km (210-280 miles).

Tianhe, the core of the Chinese Space Station
Tianhe launched on April 29, 2021. The 24-ton space station blasted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the Chinese island of Hainan aboard a Long March 5B rocket

Tianhe is the foundational module for China’s space station in low-Earth orbit. The module has a control center, docking hub and living quarters for three crew members. It’ll also provide life support to those eventually on board. Tianhe launched on April 29, 2021 on a Long March 5B rocket. China will follow up by launching 11 missions to complete its multi-module space station by 2022.

China has long had its sights set on establishing its own space station in low-Earth orbit. The country, which is not an International Space Station partner, has spent the last few decades making preparations, even launching two space labs — Tiangong-1 in 2011 and Tiangong-2 in 2016. Though both space stations were eventually destroyed upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, they provided critical information for future modules that would form a much larger space station.

That’s where Tianhe comes in. Tianhe — which means “harmony of the heavens" — is literally and figuratively at the core of China’s space station. As the foundational module, it will provide life support and living quarters for 3 crewmembers. It will also host a control center and docking hub, which will allow Tianhe to link with yet-to-be-launched science modules.

China's first space station core module Tianhe

The Tianhe core module is the largest and most complicated spacecraft independently developed by China.

It can support astronauts carrying out different scientific and technical experiments in space.

The Tianhe core module is the basis, while the next two modules will be assembled later in orbit to form the complete Chinese space station.

Tianhe core module
Rendering of Tianhe core module with the robotic arm at docking position

Tianhe (Chinese: 天和; pinyin: Tiānhé; lit. 'Harmony of the Heavens'), officially the Tianhe core module (Chinese: 天和核心舱), is the first module to launch of the Tiangong space station. It was launched into orbit on 29 April 2021, as the first launch of the final phase of Tiangong program, part of the China Manned Space Program (Project 921).

Tianhe follows in the footsteps of Salyut, Skylab, Mir, International Space Station, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space stations. It is the first module of a third-generation Chinese modular space station. Other examples of modular station projects include the Soviet/Russian Mir, Russian OPSEK, and the International Space Station. Operations will be controlled from the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center.

In 2018, a fullscale mockup of Tianhe was publicly presented at China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai. In October 2020, China selected 18 new astronauts ahead of the space station construction to participate in the country's space station project.

China space station: What is the Tiangong?
China launched a 23-tonne research lab module to its newly built space station Tiangong on Sunday 24 July. The lab Wentian, or "Quest for the Heavens", is expected to carry out biological and life science research

Tiangong space station, or "Heavenly Palace", is China's new permanent space station. The country has previously launched two temporary trial space stations, named as Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2.

The new lab Wentian is the second of three key modules to Tiangong. The first key module Tianhe - which contains living quarters for crew members - was sent into orbit in April 2021. The other key module, Mengtian science lab, is due to be launched by the end of 2022.

China has big ambitions for Tiangong. The station will have its own power, propulsion, life support systems and living quarters. It is also designed to provide refuelling power to China's new space telescope, called Xuntian, which will fly close to the space station next year.



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